Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Diffuse Arguments for God

When Dr Michael Jacoby debated Michael Shermer on the existence of God, he pulled out three arguments to support his position; first cause, fine-tuning and morality. While the first argument is a god of the gaps, the second is mistaking complexity for intelligence and the third has nothing at all to do with supernatural phenomena, together they make a nice personal justification. But for a non-believer it's simply more empty rhetoric that seems if asserted loud enough and repeated then it will somehow be valid. Of course it's not ever going to be valid no matter how many times it's used, it just leads to a futile struggle against the ignorant claims that are pushed by otherwise intelligent people.

A finely-tuned argument
The arsenal of the religious handbooks seems to be the loaded word. In the arguments, the word God is put in as a substitute for the unknown. And from there because it's "God" then it's the God they believe in. Even if the first cause argument was correct and didn't violate it's own principle, it does not point to the Judæo-Christian God. These "proofs" obfuscate the meaning of a word to encompass the argument, then because the words is now "proven", it's shifted back to it's original context. As Michael Shermer said: "smart people are great at rationalising things they came to believe for non-smart reasons", and the rationalisation of God, though put through a huge transformation, can be shifted back to it's original form that would make mathematicians wonder just how they can get that efficiency with matrix multiplication. With that in mind, a proper refutation of some of the more widely used arguments is warranted.

  • Cosmological Argument (first cause) - The argument that the universe had a beginning, so it needed a cause, that cause is God.
There are a few things wrong with this argument, firstly it's anthropomorphising the unknown. We don't know precisely what happened before the big bang, or that there even is a before. Time may indeed be a construct of this universe. We honestly don't know. There are theoretical physicists trying to work this out. Hopefully the research at CERN will shed some light on the nature of atomic particles. To call it God is nebulous, we don't know the exact cause. So calling it God is just putting an anthropomorphic view on the universe. Along that line, it's also just pushing what we call a "god of the gaps" where it's taking a gap in human knowledge and throwing God in there. There is no reason to put in God in a gap in knowledge, it's an argument that is done for centuries and each time we discover more in science that God shrinks.

The argument violates it's own principles. A universe with no innate intelligence just can't exist, but a supernatural entity of unlimited intelligence can? If you are going to make an argument that everything needs a cause, then you can't put presuppositions in that violate that rule. Not to mention that it puts a deist or pantheistic type god and uses the labelling of a personal god to describe that. Even if the universe did need a creator, why the personal god who takes interest in the trivial affairs of one species? Why not a deist god? or a Pantheistic god? Why not a polytheistic order of gods who created the big bang by playing marbles with balls made from Higgs Bosons? There is just nothing to say in the argument that it was God, the creator of original sin, the redeemer, the judge of your eternal soul. It's just using a loaded word so if you can make a specious argument to support that nebulous use of the word God which then carries on that Jesus must have come down to earth and was tortured to save us... some 13.7 billion years later mind you.

  • Fine Tuning argument - The universe has such order to it that an intelligent agent is needed to explain the complexity.
As stated above, the fine tuning argument is one that mistakes complexity for intelligence. Complex patterns can arise without an intelligent designer. 300 years ago Sir Isaac Newton used the argument of fine tuning of the solar system to show there had to be an intelligent agent behind it. Now we know how the solar system formed and how galaxies, stars and planets can form. And it's like that with many of the assertions made under this poor argument, it looks all so complex yet working in harmony. Yet none of the interstellar observations we have made need a supernatural explanation. What we know about physics fits perfectly with a naturalistic explanation for interstellar formation. If we saw improbable structures forming naturally, then yes, there may be cause for a designer. But there is a reason we don't see buildings or watches occurring naturally, the only known cause for buildings and watches are that they are made by intelligent agents, they go against any natural process (that we know of).

There are two other run-off arguments that go with the fine tuning; the first is the number of different constants that make up the universe that without it wouldn't be able to harbour life, the second is that the world is so perfectly made for humans. With the first, it's pure speculation. We know that the constants of the universe work as is, because we have a limited frame of scope to test out whether or not these variables really are fine-tuned. It works in the universe we are in, but that is not to say it's the only way a universe can work. Same goes for the extension of that argument that since the earth can harbour life it must be fine tuned. We know life works one way under one set of conditions. Who is to say that the way life came about is the only way? Again it's probably unknowable for it to happen any other way given our very limited scope and the vast distances between galaxies / stars we'll probably never encounter another life-form.

As for us, the world isn't made for us. We are made for the world, though mutation and adaptation. We are a product of 4 billion years of evolutionary adaptation, where as an organism species that have been better adapted to the environment they are in have survived. And even then we can only live in small portions of the world, and most of the that can only be habitable through the use of technology. The poles are off-limits, as are the mountains and anywhere in the ocean. We are land animals, land animals that rely on technology for any extreme conditions. There are many species that are more suited to living under a wider range of conditions, but no-one suggests that the universe was made entirely for them. Not to mention that we can't venture into space again without technology. When the universe is almost infinitely big and we are just one species on a small planet orbiting around a star which is one of hundreds of billions in a galaxy which is just one of billions. Over-design comes to mind.

  • Morality - Morality exists, therefore God exists.
This one I won't expand too much on now because I want to write a more complete argument on it later. Morality does not come from God, morality is a social construct, an implicit set of rules that determine whether our behaviour is good or bad. The basis from which morality is derived can not only be seen across cultures, it can be seen in different species. Sure it could mean that God made morality, that he programmed pack animals to behave in a certain way in order to have a better chance of survival, but it would be like saying that since evolution could have been made by God it proves God exists. Morality is not an argument for or against God, God is irrelevant to the process.

Why people get morality and God so confused is the church's role over history being the authoritative source for morality in a society. Traditionally the church has dictated behaviour, backed by a supernatural being that would punish those who didn't obey. As we've moved to a secular society where no one church has authority over the population that role has been broken, but the attitude in the community that morality is tied to God remains. Quite simply, because of the Euthyphro Dilemma, morality cannot be attributed to a deity. We know how morality works in society, and it's not an infinite absolute as set by an external being. It's a fluid process that changes as the environment changes around those in society. Morality as laid down in the bible, especially the old testament is almost completely at odds with the moral fibre of today, and it's a good thing too. Those old laws are quite barbaric and have no place in a modern civil society.

Chance? Chance?!? CHANCE?!?!?
If diffuse arguments weren't bad enough, the way to destroy the credibility of the opposing side is to create a false dichotomy; when dealing with natural occurrences, if it's not done by God it must be chance. And with the word chance, you can turn the opposing argument into that game of probability I talked about earlier where, without any frame of reference, completely explainable processes can become statistically improbable to the point where they appear absurd. It shows such a complete misunderstanding for the process and application of science that it baffles me how people who make this naïve claim could even begin to think they understand science. Scientific theories are there to explain how a process happens, it's the opposite of chance. Cause and effect only
appear as chance to the casual observer. It would appear as chance that if we rolled a die and the number 4 came up. But the number 4 was determined by the way the die was rolled.

If we extend the die metaphor, if we rolled the die 100 times we would always get a result between 1 and 6 because they are the range we can get on a single die. At no point in that would we ever roll a 7 or a -35. If they are not options, then it won't happen. The implicit use of the word chance in these arguments is to make that premise, that the sun just didn't form by itself, that life just didn't come about on it's own. The usage adds the absurdity of statistical improbability to natural occurrences. The earth has the right conditions for life, the way the solar system formed allowed this. The atomic composition of the planet comprised of the right material from which life could have sprung. It's not chance, it is a direct consequence of a gravitational collapse of particles from an exploded star. Chance it seems is just a way we put meaning onto non-meaningful events. It's another loaded word, one which shows the profound and wilful ignorance of believers who are looking for any possible way to make their irrational beliefs credible in a rational world.

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